Reflection on Reflective Equilibrium

In Michael DePaul & William Ramsey (eds.), Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and its Role in Philosophical Inquiry. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 113-128 (1998)
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As a procedure, reflective equilibrium is simply a familiar kind of standard scientific method with a new name. A theory is constructed to account for a set of observations. Recalcitrant data may be rejected as noise or explained away as the effects of interference of some sort. Recalcitrant data that cannot be plausibly dismissed force emendations in theory. What counts as a plausible dismissal depends, among other things, on the going theory, as well as on background theory and on knowledge that may be relevant to under-standing the experimental design that is generating the observations, including knowledge of the apparatus and observation conditions. This sort of mutual adjustment between theory and data is a familiar feature of scientific practice. Whatever authority RE seems to have comes, I think, from a tacit or explicit recognition that it has the same form as this familiar sort of scientific inference. One way to see the rationale underlying this procedure in science is to focus on prediction. Think of prediction as a matter of projecting what is known onto uncharted territory. To do this, you need a vehicle—a theory—that captures some invariant or pattern in what is known so that you can project it onto the unknown. How convincing the projection is depends on two factors: how sure one is of the observational base, and how sure one is that the theory gets the invariants right. The two factors are not independent, of course. One's confidence in the observational base will be affected by how persuasively the theory identifies and dismisses noise; one's confidence in the theory, on the other hand, will depend on one's confidence in the observations it takes seriously. Prediction is important as a test of theory precisely because verified predictions seem to show that the theory has correctly captured the general in the particular, that it has got the drift of the observational evidence in which our confidence is ultimately grounded.



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Robert Cummins
University of California, Davis

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